Virginia Film Festival 2015: Day 2

Virginia Film Festival 2015As rich as the materials displayed in Reel in the Closet are, they merely scratch the surface of what is out there.





Reel in the Closet 500

Friday was documentary day for me at the Virginia Film Festival, with two films that presented a fascinating view of a unique aspect of history, but that won’t be likely to play the multiplex any time soon. That combination of characteristics makes them perfect festival films, and hopefully both will become available on streaming and/or DVD before too long, so those who didn’t see them on the festival circuit can catch up at home.

Reel in the Closet is a remarkable documentary by Stu Maddux that incorporates home movies made by gay men and lesbians, many from the years when being anything other than heterosexual could land you in jail or in involuntary confinement in a mental institution. This film has several purposes, but the most obvious is to celebrate the way gay men and lesbians have long created a rich, joyous life for themselves, even if they had to do so out of sight of the mainstream American public. The range of films incorporated in this documentary is remarkable, from nude pool parties to nightclub performances to television news clips to a dinner dance with everyone scrubbed up with a suit on and looking so respectable that it takes a moment to notice that it’s entirely men dancing with men. The images of gay men and lesbians presented in the media of the time were typically negative when they existed at all, but these simple home movies prove that the official images did not capture the whole story.

Another purpose of Reel in the Closet is to encourage people to preserve their home movies and similar materials, or to bring them to archives where they can be converted to a digital format and become part of the historical record. As rich as the materials displayed in Reel in the Closet are, they merely scratch the surface of what is out there, and if materials are not preserved and cataloged, including notes about the context or “story” of each specific item, then their meaning may be lost to future generations. Maddux interviews representatives of many organizations working to preserve gay and lesbian materials, including the Lesbian Home Movie Project, The GLBT History Museum in San Francisco, and Queer Blue Light, and also discusses well as the social and economic context that played a role in who had access to home movie cameras and film (hint—white men were the most likely to be able to afford the equipment to make home movies, particularly in the days before the video revolution).

If you have any interest in the history of documentaries, you’re probably familiar with the Why We Fight series of propaganda films, most of which were directed by Frank Capra. Less well known is another series of World War II propaganda films created by Capra collaborator Robert Riskin (he wrote the screenplays for, among other films, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Meet John Doe). That would be the “Projections of America” series of 26 short films, which were created for the Office of War Information and were intended to be screened overseas, to explain American values and the American way of life to the world.

Peter Miller’s documentary Projections of America, narrated by John Lithgow, offers an excellent introduction to the Projections of America series while also providing an overview of the life and work of Riskin (fun fact: he was married to Fay Wray). The propaganda films covered different subjects, and weren’t afraid to use the power of Hollywood (a short about Swedes in America was introduced by Ingrid Bergman), but the overriding emphasis was on presenting the lives of ordinary Americans—farmers, ranchers, building cleaners, school children, and the like. Miller’s documentary is straightforward and informative and includes many clips from the original films. For political and cultural reasons, the films in the Projections of America series fell out of the public eye in America, although they were screened around the world during and after the war. | Sarah Boslaugh

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